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Alaskan Range: River Of Information

Greg Hill considers similes, metaphors and the controversial apostraphe.

For more of Greg's sparkling and thoroughly grammatic columns please click on
http://www.openwriting.com/archives/alaskan_range/

I like to think of the public library as a great river of information flowing past me. People coming to the library in search of knowledge stir the river up and allow us librarians glimpses of all sorts of amazing things, people, and events we’d never otherwise encounter. Recent graduates of English Composition 101 can tell you that the aforementioned “river of information” is a simile, a figure of speech, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, “in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by ‘like’ or ‘as.’”

Those of us for whom the “parts of speech” are but faded, tattered remnants of memory can have trouble distinguishing between similes and their near cousins: metaphors. “Metaphor” means “a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison,” but it doesn’t use “as” or “like.” It comes from the ancient Greek “metaphora,” which the Online Etymological Dictionary says meant “a transfer, especially of the sense of one word to a different word.”

The most common metaphoric mistake is mixing them. This is discussed in a recent column by Richard Nordquist, an Armstrong Atlantic State University professor of Rhetoric and English. Nordquist writes for About.com, producing pithy, humorous pieces on grammar that are often forwarded to me by a former high school teacher. Nordquist notes that figures of speech can perk up writing. “But when laid on too thick, stretched beyond recognition, bent out of shape, or mixed like a Mai Tai on skid row, figurative language may only confuse – or amuse – our readers.”

Nordquist’s metaphor article cites a number of mixed metaphors. The Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, for example, said their mayor “often strips his own gears by failing to engage the clutch when shifting what emanates from his brain to his mouth. The bullets he fires too often land on his own feet.” And in 2002 the Times reported that Mary Matalin, VP Cheney’s chief political aide, mixed similes when she said “We’re not so inflexible or blind that we’re like Stepford wives and husbands marching like lemmings over a cliff. What we’re doing is recalibrating.”

No one’s going to jail over grammar glitches like these, but some people really get their knickers in a twist over this sort of thing. Others prefer getting upset over even smaller things, like apostrophes. Doubters can verify it by checking out http://www.killtheapostrophe.com/ “This website,” the founder states, “is for those who want to remove the apostrophe from the English language, on the basis that it serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who don’t.” He or she goes on to claim apostrophes are “one more tool of snobbery,” redundant, and wasteful (“Tremendous amounts of money are spent every year by businesses on proof readers, part of whose job is to put apostrophes in the ‘correct’ place”).

What is the correct place for apostrophes? An online comic strip about an angry flower named Bob (www.angryflower.com) has the answer in a strip titled “Bob’s Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots.” He says apostrophes used in contractions, like “can’t” and “y’all, is OK, and it’s all right to use them for possessives, such as “Greg’s folly” and “the library’s DVD.” But according to Bob, using apostrophes for plurals is “Wrong! TotallyWrong! Where’d You Learn This? Stop Doing It!” He adds it’s also incorrect to use apostrophes to pluralize words ending in vowels. More than one radio, for instance, should be spelled “radios,” and not radio’s.”

Some of us abhor the dread aposiopesis, which is defined by the AHD as “A sudden breaking off of a thought in the middle of a sentence.” Growing up I spent a lot of time waiting for my mom, who admittedly sometimes had things besides me on her mind, to continue sentences she’d started, so I’ve been sensitized. Aposiopeses have their uses, though, especially in newspaper columns restricted to 700 words when deadlines grow short and holidays grow near yet the authors want to wish everyone well. But how to cover all the religious and cultural bases without offending? Aposiopesis can provide the answer, so “Happy ...”

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